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#BornThisDay: Cecil Beaton


Self Portait


January 14, 1904 – Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton:

“The truly fashionable are beyond fashion.”

There are so many wonderful things to appreciate about the Netflix’s The Crown. Peter Morgan’s series about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II is a lavish, luxuriant, taffeta-wrapped, jewel-dripping drama that looks as if every penny its $13-million per episode budget is money well spent. Equal part historical saga and soap opera, it indulges our seemingly endless curiosity about the British Royal Family. In the final scene from Season One, the Queen posed for official coronation portraits shot by Cecil Beaton who manages to transform her majesty from a handsome, if uninteresting young woman, into the glorious and resolute Elizabeth Regina. Beaton’s official portraits made her an icon throughout the Commonwealth. When Beaton turns up to shoot a portrait, he does so while unspooling lines from Wordsworth, Tennyson or Shakespeare to set his subjects in a properly glorious frame of mind. In what is my favorite hour of television from last year, the Episode Four of Season Two, Beaton comes to Buckingham Palace to shoot Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), who gives him some art criticism, complaining that his only way to take a picture is to create a fairy tale.

This Beaton, played in The Crown by Irish actor Mark Tandy, had attended Elizabeth’s coronation ceremony, taking notes and making sketches from the balcony. His is the most famous photograph of the Queen, the one we use when we picture her. Beaton became an unofficial court photographer for the British Royal Family in 1937, after photographing the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth’s uncle Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne so he could marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.

That scandalous abdication and the disgraced Edward VIII, which figures in a major plot twist on The Crown, tarnished the image of the Windsors. Beaton is credited with restoring some glory to the Royal family with his photographs.

I have been reading two volumes of Cecil Beaton’s Diaries over the past few years, in small little doses, choosing to read a few entries here and there.

Beaton recalled in his diaries, that he received a call from Buckingham Palace:

”The telephone rang. ‘This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. Queen Mary wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon.’ At first, I thought it might be a practical joke, but it was no joke. My pleasure and excitement were overwhelming. In choosing me to take her photographs, the Queen made a daring innovation…my work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.”

The official portraits were a stunning success, creating a modern image for the Royal Family. In 1942, he photographed Queen Mary’s 16-year-old daughter Elizabeth for the first time. Beaton photographed Elizabeth again for her 18th birthday, and wrote in his diary:

”Princess Elizabeth’s easy charm, like her mother’s, does not carry across in her photographs, and each time one sees her one is delighted to find how much more serene, magnetic, and at the same time meltingly sympathetic she is than one had imagined. One misses, even in color photographs, the effect of the dazzlingly fresh complexion, the clear regard from the glass-blue eyes, and the gentle, all pervading sweetness of her smile.”

Beaton continued taking photos of the Royal Family over the decades, including each of Elizabeth’s children soon at their christenings: Prince Charles in 1948, Princess Anne in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964.

HRH Elizabeth II, on the day of Princess Margaret’s wedding in 1960

Princess Margaret’s official engagement photo, 1959

Beaton was an inspired fashion, portrait and war photographer, the most celebrated of his era. His shot of three-year-old Eileen Dunne, on a hospital bed after the blitz, became an iconic cover of LIFE Magazine.

He knew and photographed everyone that mattered for most of the 20th century, including Coco Chanel, Albert Camus, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys.

The last time he photographed Queen Elizabeth II in 1968, he was less charmed than he was in 1942. In the diaries, he writes:

“The difficulties are great. Our point of view, our tastes are so different. The result is a compromise between two people and the fates play a large part.”

As a gay man of his era, and a dandy like Quentin Crisp, Beaton had to reinvent himself and discover a way to survive and prosper. I have always been grateful to be a gay man because it meant that I was an outsider and not an old, straight, white male. How much harder that must have been during most of the 20th century, when homosexuality was illegal and being exposed could mean the end of a career.

Born in London in 1904, and coming of age in the 1920s, Beaton was in love with the worlds of High Society, Theater, and Glamour. Beauty in his hands was transformed into fantasy, romance and considerable charm. His inspired artistic eye led to a following among fashionable society and eventually a full-fledged career as the foremost fashion and portrait photographer of his day. He was so attuned to the changes of fashion that his career maintained its momentum for more than five decades; from the Bloomsbury Circle to The Rolling Stones.

His work is the essence of elegance and grace, but his personal behavior was anything but. He was never known to be a loyal friend, a humble talent, or a genuine soul of any sort. In fact, his persona and image were fabricated to gain him access to a world that had always been just beyond his reach. Still, everybody loved Beaton the photographer. He worked for Vogue Magazine for 30+ years. Louise Dahl-Wolfe, at Harper’s Bazaar wrote:

”He was such a naughty man. You had to laugh at all the awful things he said about everybody, especially the people at Vogue.”

Beaton laughed at everybody except himself, for whom he reserved deep compassion with a dollop of self-pity. Truman Capote described Beaton as ”Total Self-Creation”.

Clever, but not intellectual, good-looking, but not quite handsome, Beaton was nonetheless vain. He had his clothes made one size too small to flatter his already skinny frame. He was never quite glamorous, despite an international jet-set lifestyle that brought him into the orbit of everyone who was anybody for more than six decades.

Beaton had a burning desire to be part of aristocratic privileged Downton Abbey style of living, which was still going strong in the 1920s and 1930s. He was what was known at the time, a pansy. With his ambition focused on the British Upper-Class and American celebrities, his gayness might have been a disadvantage, but he capitalized on it by focusing not on the men, but on the wives and girlfriends. He was also way too eager to please his subjects.

For most of the 20th century, Beaton was at the very center of the creative world: photographer of the coolest people, designer of sets and costumes for stage and screen, from Oscar Wilde’s comedies to the lavish Edwardian gowns for both the 1956 stage production and the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady, for which he won a Tony Award and Academy Award, as well as the belle époque look of Gigi (1958).

He was a chronicler of showbiz figures from Noël Coward to Mick Jagger, for whom Beaton had a special passion (Jagger dubbed him ”Rip-Van-With-it”).

Mick in Morocco , 1967

He kept those detailed diaries that I have been reading, noting everything and revealing the true Cecil Beaton: a heady mixture of social insight, petulance and snobbery, much like the world that he inhabited. The diaries show his witty and unsparing thoughts on the many stars he photographed. Beaton even enjoyed the naughty things that were said about him. Jean Cocteau called him: ”Malice In Wonderland”. Alan Jay Lerner, the great lyricist and libretto writer of My Fair Lady and Gigi, claimed that there was more than one Cecil Beaton:

”We used to say that inside Cecil Beaton there was another Cecil Beaton sending lots of little Cecils into the world. One did the sets, another did the costumes. A third took the photographs. Another put the sketches in an exhibition, then into magazines, then in a book. Another Cecil photographed the sketches and sold these.”

Audrey Hepburn, via YouTube

Beaton was also a world traveler, an arbiter of taste and fashion, a painter, and exceptionally wicked caricaturist. He had an ability to mix with actors, painters, musicians, film stars, society figures and, later in life, the gay figures from what he dubbed ”The Peacock Revolution” of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Beaton had relationships with series of much younger men. His last lover was Olympic fencer Kin Hoitsma. The great love of his life was noted art collector Peter Watson, who held the rights to his photographs. But, Beaton was also, for a time, in love with the world’s most beautiful and famous woman, Greta Garbo, to whom Beaton even proposed marriage. I don’t imagine it was ever consummated, but it was a true love affair.

Beaton left this world in 1980 after spending a lifetime focusing his lens on the most interesting people. Not only did know and photograph the alluring and important people of the 20th century, but he made them look stunning.

”Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary ”


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